Stress and the Brain
Stress has many definitions, but according to Richard Lazarus, stress is a state of anxiety produced when events and responsibilities exceed one’s coping abilities. In this way, stress relies not only on environmental factors, but on cognitive appraisals of these factors (Myers, 2004). The cerebral cortex perceives the stressor, the hypothalamus stimulates the pituitary gland to release epinephrine and norepinephrine. This in turn stimulates the adrenal glands to release the hormone cortisol (Myers, 2004). Stress affects many other areas of the body, such as the amygdala, which produces a fear response. It seems to hardwire the brain differently. Middle-aged rats that had undergone early life stress had abnormal brain-cell activity and memory loss (Brunson et. al., 2005).
The sources of stress are numerous: from catastrophes such as Hurricane Katrina, significant life changes, poverty and inequality, to daily hassles like traffic tie-ups and demanding jobs (Myer, 2004). Especially in urban and overcrowded environments, psychologists see links between everyday stressors and hypertension, and unhealthy behaviors such as lack of sleep and alcoholism (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). In fact, the leading causes of death today in America are linked to lifestyle and stress. According United Nations Security Council, about half of the world’s children grow up in extremely stressful environments (poverty, violence, war, abuse), which means that these children may have impaired cognitive abilities later on in life.
According to research by Janet Rodin, the less perceived control of a situation, the greater the stress. The elderly that lived in nursing homes, were lonely, and had to be fed, dressed, and changed, felt significantly more stress and had shorter lifespans than their independent, active counterparts.
Females seem to be more susceptible to stress and depression. After experiencing traumatic events, females are twice as likely as men to develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, where humans develop maladaptive behaviors such as avoidance, reduced responsiveness and guilt (Myers, 2004).
However, mindful exercise, such as Tai Chi, meditation, and aerobic exercise decrease stress response and promote overall well-being (Sandlund and Norlander, 2000). In a University of Wisconsin study, participants who did meditative exercises showed more electrical activity in the left side of the frontal lobe, indicating that they had a lower anxiety and a more positive emotional state (Davidson, 2003). Meditation, yoga, and other relaxation exercises also assist in autonomic reflexes. This is called conscious control. Through these practices, it is possible to gain control over the sphincter muscles in the anus and bladder. Yoga has been shown to help control heart rate, blood pressure, and other autonomic functions. These are learned behaviors—they involve the formation of new pathways in the brain.
Researchers have also found the correlation between a social support network of close friends and family and less physiological stress effects (Brown and Harris, 1978). Stress Inoculation Training and Hardiness Training are cognitive behavioral techniques that work to improve stress resistance through analyzing stressors, teaching coping techniques, and changing behavior so that the patient feels more assertive and in control (Kobasa, 1986). Drugs, such as beta-blockers, which reduce stress arousal, anxiolytic drugs, such as minor tranquilizers, and anti-depressant drugs, which treat severe anxiety, can also be used to combat stress.
What are the most common causes of stress?
Stress happens when people feel like they don’t have the tools to manage all of the demands in their lives. Stress can be short-term or long-term. Missing the bus or arguing with your spouse or partner can cause short-term stress. Money problems or trouble at work can cause long-term stress. Even happy events, like having a baby or getting married can cause stress. Some of the most common stressful life events include:
- Death of a spouse
- Death of a close family member
- Losing your job
- Major personal illness or injury
- Marital separation
- Spending time in jail
What are some common signs of stress?
Everyone responds to stress a little differently. Your symptoms may be different from someone else’s. Here are some of the signs to look for:
- Not eating or eating too much
- Feeling like you have no control
- Needing to have too much control
- Lack of energy
- Lack of focus
- Trouble getting things done
- Poor self-esteem
- Short temper
- Upset stomach
- Back pain
- General aches and pains
These symptoms may also be signs of depression or anxiety, which can be caused by long-term stress.
Do women react to stress differently than men?
One recent survey found that women were more likely to experience physical symptoms of stress than men. But we don’t have enough proof to say that this applies to all women. We do know that women often cope with stress in different ways than men. Women “tend and befriend,” taking care of those closest to them, but also drawing support from friends and family. Men are more likely to have the “fight or flight” response. They cope by “escaping” into a relaxing activity or other distraction.
Can stress affect my health?
The body responds to stress by releasing stress hormones. These hormones make blood pressure, heart rate, and blood sugar levels go up. Long-term stress can help cause a variety of health problems, including:
- Mental health disorders, like depression and anxiety
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Abnormal heart beats
- Menstrual problems
- Acne and other skin problems
Does stress cause ulcers? NO
A bacterium called Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) is a major cause of peptic ulcers. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin and ibuprofen, are another common cause. Rarely, cancerous or noncancerous tumors in the stomach, duodenum, or pancreas cause ulcers.
Peptic ulcers are NOT caused by stress or eating spicy food, but both can make ulcer symptoms worse. Smoking and drinking alcohol also can worsen ulcers and prevent healing.
What is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a type of anxiety disorder that can occur after living through or seeing a dangerous event. It can also occur after a sudden traumatic event. This can include:
- Being a victim of or seeing violence
- Being a victim of sexual or physical abuse or assault
- The death or serious illness of a loved one
- Fighting in a war
- A severe car crash or a plane crash
- Hurricanes, tornadoes, and fires
You can start having PTSD symptoms right after the event. Or symptoms can develop months or even years later. Symptoms may include:
- Flashbacks, or feeling like the event is happening again
- Staying away from places and things that remind you of what happened
- Being irritable, angry, or jumpy
- Feeling strong guilt, depression, or worry
- Trouble sleeping
- Feeling numb
- Having trouble remembering the event
Women are 2 to 3 times more likely to develop PTSD than men. Also, people with ongoing stress in their lives are more likely to develop PTSD after a dangerous event.
Fight or Flight Response
When we experience excessive stress, either from internal worry or external circumstance, a bodily reaction called the “fight-or-flight” response will be triggered. Harvard physiologist Walter Cannon originally defined it. The response system represents the genetic impulse to protect ourselves from bodily harm, but also can result in negative health effects. According to Cannon’s theory, during stress-response processes, the sympathetic nervous system increases the heart rate and releases chemicals to prepare our body to either fight or flee. When the fight-or-flight response system get activated, it tends to perceive everything in the environment as a potential threat to survival.
In modern life, we do not get the option of “flight” very often. We have to deal with those stressors all the time and find a solution. When you need to take an SAT test, there is no way for you to avoid it; sitting in the test room for five hours is the only choice. Lacking the “flight” option in stress-response process leads to higher stress levels in modern society.
Watch Fight or Flight Response and take the ungraded quiz.
Stress and Health
Exercise builds stronger bodies only if we push ourselves beyond our regular level of strength and endurance. Progressing in your intellectual skills occurs only by going beyond your adaptation level for the complexity and amount of knowledge you must acquire. Stress as “challenge” enhances physical and emotional well-being. Mountain climbers want risk and challenge, but they want the type that they feel they can master and mostly control. They don’t want to be perfectly in control because then the challenge would not be so great. They want to be on the edge between in-control and having to use every degree of skill, concentration, and problem solving to succeed. The same is true of race car drivers, downhill skiers, chess players, musicians, and artists.
These activities have been described by Csikszentmihalyi as inducing the experience of “flow” that totally captures the attention, makes it very easy to continue, and very hard to stop. There are many other activities and professions that produce “flow,” but the essence of the experience is to be on the edge of challenge and failure with the perception that your own efforts will make the difference between good and bad outcomes. In these conditions stress builds healthier bodies and higher well-being. People who experience “flow” frequently report high degrees of satisfaction in life.
Stress is in the eye of the beholder
The process by which we influence the emotion we experience in a situation by the interpretation or cognitions we select in the experience is described by Lazarus’s theory of appraisal as influencing our stress experience. This theory may be beneficial to our understanding of the differences between individual’s stress levels. The theory’s main points are:
- When we experience a situation or event we first determine if it is a threat, a challenge, or is neutral.
- We then assess our inventory of resources to cope with the event. If we do not perceive we are adequate to the task, we must be able to withdraw or we will feel trapped in a situation with aversive consequences coming. That induces distress and all the physiological processes that harm our health. If we perceive that we have the resources to successfully cope with the situation, we feel challenged and optimistic. Note that challenge and optimism are related to enhanced health and sense of well-being.
This second stage of appraisal impacts the first stage in a loop process. If we at first perceive a threat but then realize we can handle it, it reduces the distress and may even create a perception of challenge. If at first we perceive a challenge but then realize that we don’t have what it takes to be successful, we may begin to experience distress as we see the aversive outcome of failure looming ahead. Depending on the meaning of the outcome to us, the distress may be mild or severe. If the situation is always hanging over us and we always feeling inadequate to it and anxious about negative outcomes, we are always under distress. Our health and well-being take a beating in that scenario.
Next we must select from our repertoire of coping resources. There are two types of coping resources:
- palliative (emotion-focused)
Instrumental coping solves the problem and removes the stressor form our experience as in working out a conflict with someone to reduce the distress or by getting a better job to reduce financial pressures.
Palliative coping alters our physiological reactions to stress that will not go away and cannot be escaped. These include relaxation skills, reinterpretation of the meaning or effects of the stressor, acceptance of the situation, or optimism about future improvements in the situation. Palliative skills would include relaxing in the traffic jam even though you have an important appointment that is being missed. You realize you cannot do anything about it, so you may as well relax because anger and tension will not make the cars move any faster, but it will hurt you, so you choose to relax instead.
As we go to our repertoire of coping skills to select one or more, we may become more optimistic of success and reappraise the situation in the first step. It may become less threatening and hence less distressful. We could find that our coping resources will be less adequate than we initially thought and we would become more threatened now. Even a challenge might be converted into a threat as in traveling to a another country for the first time and finding your credit cards are missing and you have no money for anything and no way to get any.
This interactive appraisal and coping process is at the heart of the impact of stress on us. If we interpret a situation as stressful, it has the stress-related effects on us. If we have few coping sources, more situations will be perceived as distressing. If we have many coping resources, more situations will be perceived as challenging or at least neutral.
As I am driving down the road and have a flat tire, I could be annoyed at the trouble it causes or highly threatened by the memory of Bill Cosby’s son’s murder a few years ago as he changed his tire. If I don’t know how to change a tire and it is night time, I may feel very threatened as I perceive helplessness and vulnerability to someone’s attacking me. If I assure myself that this is unlikely and I do know how to change a tire, I may decide that I will get this done in ten minutes and be on the road safely. But then I find that my spare tire is flat. Now I feel threatened for sure. But if I have a good spare, have a good flashlight, have a handgun and the skill to use it, and have changed many tires, I may only feel annoyed at the hassle and not feel threatened (many instrumental skills). I may have none of these things but have a cell phone and a close friend who will quickly be here to solve the problem for me (social support). My distress is much less then.
These factual situations are part of the appraisal and coping process. Perception is also critically important. If I have little confidence in myself to handle a flat tire even though I have been taught how to do it and have the tire, I may feel more threatened. If I have the cell phone but don’t believe I should bother anybody to come here, or don’t believe they would want to help me, the facts do not determine my reaction as much as my perception of the facts determines it.
A second example of the role of coping skills and perception could involve getting started in this course. If you are a computer whiz and have taken several college courses including online courses before, you got started with little problem. Learning to use Etudes, to take online quizzes probably did not cause much distress. But if you were new to using the Internet, had never taken an online course, and had low self-confidence, you may have been quite distressed. Same situation, different coping resources. Some of our community colleges go to great effort to be sure new online students have the knowledge and coping skills to begin a course with little stress.
Now add pure perception. If you perceive college as a supportive environment that will find a way to assist you to get through as long as you put forth the effort, and perceive instructors as willing to be flexible when circumstances are beyond all of our control, like getting started on the three programs we use and getting books late, you may be hassled but not threatened about failing the course because of these factors. But if you see colleges and instructors as money-hungry and deliberately placing obstacles in your path to cause you to fail and drop out, you have been very distressed when you had these difficulties as you would see no support or flexibility to allow you to adapt to the new situation and have the time to catch up. You might even feel quite angry at this new ploy to get your tuition and frustrate you into quitting. The reality of the college and instructor’s intent make no difference in your initial perception and resultant choices. It is your perception of reality that determines what you will do.
The appraisal and coping process underlies the statement that “stress is in the eye of the beholder.” Any event of situation may be perceived differently by different individuals due to past experience with it, learned skills, personality traits like Type A and optimism, and the amount of distress being experienced already. Social support may be instrumental in helping cope with problem as in coming to help with the flat tire, or being eager to listen and be supportive with your sharing your experiences. Both reduce the distress levels.
Find out if life events are adding up to stress and illness in your life.
- Complete the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale (Social Readjustment Rating Scale).
- Did your score surprise you? What can you do about it?
Stress and the Brain: Psychology/Genetic Interplay, CC-BY-SA, http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/SL_Psychology/Genetic_interplay
What are the most common causes of stress?: Stress and Your Health Fact Sheet, http://womenshealth.gov/publications/our-publications/fact-sheet/stress-your-health.cfm
Does stress cause ulcers? NO: H-Pylori, NIDDK, NIH, http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/hpylori/#2
What is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?: Stress and Your Health Fact Sheet, http://womenshealth.gov/publications/our-publications/fact-sheet/stress-your-health.cfm
Fight or Flight Response: Stress Response, York School AP Psychology Textbook, CC-BY-SA-NC, http://appsychtextbk.wikispaces.com/Stress+Response
Stress and Health: Stress and Health, Bob Riesenberg, Whatcom Community College and Washington Online, Washington State Colleges, CC-BY.